Feature Message

2nd Sunday after Epiphany – January 17, 2021

January 15, 2021 by Roger Gench

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

The lectionary text from 1 Samuel presents a challenge for the preacher on this 2nd Sunday after Epiphany.

We could confine the assigned reading from 1 Samuel 3 to the first 10 verses and preach an uplifting message about the call of young Samuel. Alternatively, we could include the parenthetical and sobering verses that follow in verses 11-20, which convey God’s judgment on the house of Eli, announcing that change of leadership is afoot because of the abuse of priestly power by Eli’s sons. I, for one, have never enjoyed preaching on judgment, but the integrity of the story of Eli and Samuel might compel us to do so. “Accountability” is the word I would use in telling this larger story, not because it is a less severe word than “judgment,” but because judgment is targeted. Eli’s sons egregiously abused their priestly power and the story of the call of Samuel is about holding them accountable. The Bible is filled with stories about speaking truth to power, and this is one of them. One of the reasons Jesus was crucified was because he called out those who abused power and held them accountable.  In our day, people who hold power are also accountable – politicians are surely accountable, as are religious institutions – and an important aspect of the church’s witness is holding public and religious leaders responsible for their use of power.

On this Sunday when many churches will celebrate the life and legacy Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself thinking of his namesake, Martin Luther, who also protested the abuse of power in his own day. Many of us celebrated the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation in October of 2017, inaugurated when Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, calling for change. Less well known, but to my mind just as significant, was Luther’s defense of the Reformation in the Heidelberg Disputation in April of 1518, the following year. In this disputation, Luther makes a clear distinction between what he calls a “theology of glory,” which “calls evil good and good evil,” and a “theology of the cross,” which “calls the thing what it actually is.” In our day, Luther’s indictment of a theology of glory pertains to us when we refrain from calling evil what it is. In the longer version of the lectionary text, Eli is held accountable for failing to “restrain” his sons (1 Samuel 3:13). This serves as a sober reminder that sins of omission (“we have left undone those things which we ought to have done”) are as evil as sins of commission. To put it another way, by failing to name evil as evil, we essentially bless it as good!

To bring this close to home, remember that in this current time of racial reckoning, we are likely to hear people in our churches (and perhaps even ourselves) claim that we are not racist or that we are colorblind – that we do not see the race of another person or treat people differently based on their race. This may seem innocent enough. But author and historian Ibram X. Kendi writes in his book “How to Be an Antiracist” that the problem with saying someone is “not racist” is that such a statement claims neutrality, when actually none exists. Kendi says that we are either one of two things: racist, or antiracist and resisting racism. He writes that “the opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ ”

Kendi contends the same is true for claims of colorblindness — by failing to name racism as a scourge on our world (to call a thing what it is), we leave it in place. Another way of putting this: by failing to name racism as evil, we bless it as good. Again, Kendi’s point is this: “One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist.” There is no in-between.

On a Sunday when we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it seems to me that it is critical that we name racism, both in our own lives and in our country, for what it is: evil — not the way of God in this world. In a predominantly white denomination like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it is especially important for us to name the evil of racism that still deforms us, for King’s prophetic witness is every bit as needed now as it was in his own day. Indeed, his words still ring painfully true, and if we attend to them we will be convicted by their relevance.

In his book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King wrote this: “White America was ready to demand that the African American should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. … White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor.”

How can we read these words without George Floyd and countless others coming to mind, and without asking ourselves whether we have been theologians of the cross, “calling a thing what it actually is,” or theologians of glory?  And how can we read these words in light of the display at the U.S. Capitol building this past week as an insurrectionist mob sought to achieve vigilante justice in the face of what they falsely deem to be electoral fraud. In the face of such deceptions, how can we not ask ourselves whether we have been theologians of the cross or theologians of glory?  The word of God given to Samuel in the story of his calling conveys a divine vocation of calling a thing what it is.

A verse from the psalm for this Sunday (Psalm 139:4) may be as discomforting as it is comforting as we consider this calling: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” We know that our words have not always be truthful, and that we have sinned not only by what we have said, but by what we have left unsaid. Yet the prophetic impulse to be a theologian of the cross stems from a penitential theology grounded in the sure reality of a merciful God in whom alone is our help, and who forgives, restores, heals and empowers us for participation in God’s own work of mending the creation.  The God who knows our inmost thoughts and words before they are spoken is also the One who gives us the words to preach, and whose Spirit empowers us for this ministry. This God of the cross is also the God of resurrection, who brings healing and transformation at broken places.

This week:

  1. What are the pros and cons of preaching, teaching, or reflecting on verses 1-10 alone, or of tackling the whole story (verses 1-20)?
  2. If you choose to preach, teach or reflect on the whole story, how do you think you would interpret the judgment of God that finds expression in it?
  3. Eli was held accountable for failing to restrain his son’s abuse of power — a sin of omission. As you reflect on sins of omission in your own life and in the life of the church, what comes to mind?
  4. Reflect on Luther’s observation: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.” What strikes you about this observation, or what questions does it raise for you? What is its relevance for our lives of faith today?
  5. Will you be including the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in your reflection on the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany? If so, what would you like to remember and to say? How do you talk about racism in your community?
  6. Have you ever felt empowered for prophetic speech and action in your life of faith? If so, how and in what circumstance?